Living in a small community means you often know things about strangers’ lives: who he’s related to, where she works, who her kids hang out with, where else he has worked, and a myriad other odd details. At the same time, you might not really know that person – around here people say, “I know of him.”
My family knew of one man who was a Dollar General cashier. He had another job as well. All four of us had a positive impression of him. He was always friendly and particularly polite. We even know that he lives on our street because we see his truck at a house about a mile away from ours. When we heard that he was fired from his second job for being rude, we were really surprised. We felt it was probably unfair. After awhile, he didn’t work at the Dollar General anymore, but showed up in the convenient store across the street. Again, we felt bad for the guy. He was clearly a hard worker, and willing to do whatever he needed to in order to have a job. Third shift in a convenient store can be a tough gig.
Then, one night, we were headed out of town and needed a bag of ice. We stopped at the store and the friendly cashier was working.
There was a group of teenage boys in line in front of my husband, who really just needed the key to the ice chest (really? people steal ice? geez.). My husband asked for the key. The nice man we thought so well of suddenly turned rude. He refused to give my husband the key, and acted like we were going to steal the ice.
Maybe he was afraid he would get in trouble for just handing over the key. Maybe he was worried about the group of teenagers stealing something. Regardless, he didn’t have to be rude. But he was. It ended up taking over 15 minutes for us to buy a $2 bag of ice, and we felt like suspects or something.
That one interaction changed everything we thought about this person. Now instead of saying “the nice cashier who lives down the street,” we say “that weird guy who used to work at the Dollar Store.” After hundreds of positive encounters, this ONE ugly one wiped away our good feelings toward this man. It didn’t have anything to do with customer service, although it was a bad experience on that level, too. What I’m talking about is much more personal.
Now when we run into this guy, or he is our cashier, we feel wary. We don’t know what to expect. Will he be nice? Will he imply we are thieves? How is he feeling that day?
It amazes me that one bad experience can outweigh hundreds of good ones. But, since the night we bought ice, I’ve observed the same sort of thing with other people – you think you have a comfortable – if shallow – relationship with them, then all of a sudden, things aren’t so comfortable.
As the owner of a small business, I’m finding an especially important lesson in these observations. Everyone has “off” days when we are maybe snippier than we realize. It’s scary to think that on one of those not-so-fabulous days I might unwittingly change how a long-term client views me and my business. Some client relationships take months or even years to build, and while I hope that after that much time, both parties would be a little more lenient with judgement, you never know.
Of course, I work hard to make sure my relationships with clients go a little deeper than my relationships with cashiers who work at stores nearby. But in one way it doesn’t really matter. A bad interaction can color the relationship, making it so that either party is looking for the negatives – and that is bad for a service provider who bases her prices partly on providing outstanding overall service.
I’m not sure there is a way to guard against coming across rougher than you intend to once in a while. The best we can do is try to understand when someone else does so in the hopes others will do the same for us. I’m going to try to think of the “weird guy” as a “nice guy” again, and just imagine that he was having a bad day and that he didn’t really think we would steal the ice.
Have you ever had one incident change the nature of a sales or customer oriented relationship?